Just one year ago, Kalamazoo saw the opening of a new Virtual Reality arcade called Nova in the Vine neighborhood. Now, students need only travel to Waldo Library to immerse themselves in otherworldly adventures.
On Jan. 16, a soft opening for a new VR lab was held in the basement of Waldo Library with the purpose of showcasing the technology capabilities, as well as which games and programs will be available to play with. The results were absolutely astonishing, and only serve to unlock the gates of the imagination into what the possibilities for such technology could be.
“We wanted to provide VR experiences to the campus,” Kevin Abbott, an Interactive Media Specialist in the Office of Information Technology and self-described Chief Instigator of the new VR Lab said.
“I wanted to do a VR segment hands-on, but I only had one Oculus Rift,” Abbot said. “I had been talking to other faculty who were having similar issues where they were trying to bring this content to their classes. Almost everyone I brought in had ideas of what they wanted to do, and I realized that we really needed a space on campus.”
The VR lab was originally planned for use by faculty, but was changed when it was realized that students could put the lab to good use, as well. At the same time, Waldo Library was looking for ways to be more student-focused, and VR had been one of the topics discussed, and it was eventually decided to install the lab into the basement.
After signing a health waiver, students were divided into six different stations for time slots of 45 minutes per turn and given a selection of games to choose from. Some of the flashier titles included zombie apocalypse shooter “Killing Floor: Incursion,” and the cartoon world of “Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-Ality.” Students unfamiliar with the console could play a training simulator, where an on-screen robot teaches the basics of the controls. Reminiscent of the nunchuck attachment of the Nintendo “Wiimote,” the player holds a motion-sensitive grip controller in each hand.
Upon putting on the headset and getting a feel for the surprisingly fluid motion controls, players are immediately immersed into another world of their choosing. But besides blasting zombies and helping Rick Sanchez, the possibilities the system go even further than just games.
“Here in the lab, we not only wanted to support an opportunity for teachers, but we also wanted to have opportunities for students to be able to learn,” Abbot said. “We have content-creation and VR development software. Students in my honors course, their final project is to use some of those same tools to develop a VR experience and we wanted to make those same tools available to students.”
Some of these tools range from the exploratory, such as the VR edition of Google Earth, to the wildly artistic, such as Oculus Medium, a tool which can be combined with the technologies of 3D printing to bring virtual reality into actual reality.
“The sculpting program Oculus Medium allows you to sculpt in 3D with different shaped nozzles and brushes, and the output from that can be set to a 3D printer or brought into a 3D modeling program,” Abbot said. “I’ve been talking to a sculpting teacher in the art department about coming over and working with students and passing it through [that program].”
Possibilities for programs discussed during the soft opening included a surgery simulator for aspiring medical field workers, as well as engineering students, who could disassemble an engine in 3D.
“If people decided not to come, it would be an absolute missed opportunity, because this is also the first step to where the technology of our world is going,” Leah Barton, a Sales and Marketing Junior and employee of the Interactive Media Services Department said. “This is gonna be implemented in day-to-day jobs. This is something where students would be able to have that first-hand experience in getting ahead of the world, taking advantage of the opportunity that other schools might not have to learn these skills. These are skills that employers will look for that will benefit you in the future, and have fun while doing it.”
As previously stated, the VR lab was originally designed with Western faculty in mind, and they are still highly encouraged to participate and learn the capabilities first-hand. The core purpose of the VR lab is to inspire creativity amongst those who use it.
“When it comes to staff, there’s a lot of potential for it. Think about all the different ways you could teach people,” Collin Ceisel, a Mechanical Engineering student and employee of the IT Service of Waldo Library said.
“You could do practice surgery, you can travel the world for history class and actually see the culture. For Engineering students, a lot of faculty there could design something in 3D. I’m talking specifically about engineering design programs like SOLIDWORKS and AutoCAD. Being able to actually do that in 3D, and being able to accurately design a whole car, let’s say, in virtual reality, is just some of the awesome things you could do. Your imagination is, quite frankly, the limit.”
The programs available are only scratching the surface. The future is indeed now, and is only going to improve over time. There is so much more to be said about this exhibit, but interested players absolutely must see the technology in action to believe it.
The grand opening will be early next month, but will have steady hours from here on out. Schedules are posted inside the library, and admission is absolutely free.
“VR does not need a game around it,” Abbot added. “Where video gaming failed in education, because of real specific reasons, I think VR has a real chance to succeed.”